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Joe Biden Thinks A Rail Strike Has Been Averted

Above photo: The midnight deadline was mooted, but a strike or lockout is still possible if members reject the tentative agreement, which is still under wraps. Tyler Silvest.

Do Rail Workers?

Just after 5 a.m. on Thursday, Marty Walsh tweeted that the railroad companies and the railroad unions had come to a tentative agreement, less than 19 hours from a potential shutdown:

“Moments ago, following more than 20 consecutive hours of negotiations at [the Department of Labor], the rail companies and union negotiators came to a tentative agreement that balances the needs of workers, businesses, and our nation’s economy. The Biden Administration applauds all parties for reaching this hard-fought, mutually beneficial deal. Our rail system is integral to our supply chain, and a disruption would have had catastrophic impacts on industries, travelers and families across the country.”

By 11:30 a.m., Joe Biden was in the White House Rose Garden, declaring victory: “This is a win for tens of thousands of rail workers and for their dignity and the dignity of their work, it’s a recognition of that.”

As the President turned to leave, a reporter called out a question: “Mr. President, is it premature to celebrate before the unions vote?”

Strictly speaking, the answer is yes. The signed tentative agreement now goes out for a ratification vote to the members of 12 different rail unions.

Per the Railway Labor Act, a new tentative agreement means a new cooling-off period, so the midnight deadline was mooted as part of the deal. But a contract rejection is still a very live possibility, based on discussions with members and leaders of various unions involved. So a strike (or lockout) is still on the table.

What’s in the deal?

The actual language agreed upon by the National Carriers’ Conference Committee and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and SMART-TD bargaining committees has not been released to the public nor to the membership, to some members’ frustration. So we can only speculate based on press releases and officials’ public comments.

But the general consensus is that the deal makes two main improvements upon the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) recommendations (which the holdout unions, BLET and SMART-TD, refused to accept, and which the Brotherhood of Railway Signalmen’s general chairmen and the Machinists District Lodge 19’s membership both voted to reject).

One is the addition of some number of unpaid sick days. Time-off policies in general and sick time in particular have been a focus of discussion. During negotiations, union leaders told the Washington Post, they abandoned their demand for 15 paid sick days, but maintained that “members should be allowed to attend routine medical appointments without jeopardizing their employment.”

Per the BLET/SMART-TD press release after the deal was announced, the agreement contains “contract language exempting time off for certain medical events from carrier attendance policies,” but the release doesn’t specify a particular number of days or which medical events are covered.

The other improvement in the deal is a limit to health care cost increases. The PEB agreement recommended that workers should pay 15 percent of health care premium payments. Currently, railroad workers pay about $230 per month for both family and individual plans.

This deal has workers paying the 15 percent, but a release from the Brotherhood of Railway Signalmen says it caps the monthly amount workers will pay at $398.97.

The BLET/SMART-TD release doesn’t mention the cap, just that “no additional increases will apply to our monthly contributions while the parties bargain over the next National Agreement.” Which is to say, there will be no premium increases from 2024 (the end of the term of this tentative agreement) until the next agreement is ratified (which could be months or years).

The deal, as announced by the rail employers, was negotiated to cover the BLET, SMART-TD, and BRS, all of whom were facing the midnight deadline with no deal or extension in place. But most if not all of the other rail unions have a “me-too” clause in their contracts, or otherwise understand the additions to apply to their contracts as well.

Voting blind

Members in most unions haven’t received much if any official communication about the timeline of the extended cooling-off period, voting periods, or renewed strike authorizations.

A general chairman of the BMWE said on a membership call that by mid-afternoon on Thursday, 10 hours after Walsh’s announcement, the union’s headquarters said it didn’t have the final language of the deal. Nor had any tentative agreement language been released as of Friday afternoon.

A SMART-TD statement today says that the language is still being reviewed by both sides’ attorneys and a finalized TA will not be presented to the union’s general chairpersons until sometime next week, so “anyone who states that they have seen a final copy of the TA, have a copy of the final TA or knows the final contents of the agreement is not being truthful.”

Two unions appear to have set voting timelines. The BMWE plans to send mail ballots, and begin electronic and telephone voting, on Tuesday, September 20, with a vote count scheduled for October 10. The Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen announced a similar timeline.

A member of the Boilermakers said the union leadership told members to use previously mailed ballots based on their PEB-based tentative agreement in order to vote on the new tentative agreement—though some members had already returned those

Some members of the Machinists District Lodge 19, who voted to reject a tentative agreement before the Walsh-brokered updates were announced, were under the impression that their cooling-off period was still set to end September 29, the date the union set (without a membership vote) in its contract rejection announcement. That was also the date the IBEW was set to announce its vote count. These timelines may have shifted with the announcement of new tentative agreements.

An anonymous local BLET leader said that the union planned to delay voting until October 15 to November 17, and extend the cooling-off period to December 9.

The leadership of the Transport Workers Union (TWU), which represents about 700 carmen under the Transportation Communications Union (TCU) contract but does not have signatory power according to an agreement from the 1990s, sent a letter to the TCU to emphasize that “TWU local presidents and officers did not participate in the contract balloting process. Instead, they chose to remain in unity with our Brothers and Sisters in the BLET, SMART-TD, and BRS who are fighting for improvements.”

Presumably, TCU will not hold a new round of balloting, having already voted to accept the tentative agreement based on the PEB.

Can it pass?

So has a rail strike been averted? In 1992, the last national rail shutdown, it took just one union, the Machinists, on one rail line, CSX, to strike and cause a crisis on the rails.

Only one union would have to vote down the TA and reach the end of a cooling-off period to shut down a substantial amount of freight rail traffic. According to a Railroad Workers United survey of 3,162 rail workers before the latest TA, over 90 percent said they would vote down a contract based on the PEB deal, and 96 percent supported striking at the end of a cooling-off period.

According to internal SMART-TD polling data obtained by Labor Notes, 78 percent of members think the union should “reject the PEB (potential self-help/strike) and ultimately let Congress decide the National Rail Contract.”

Obviously, things have changed with the new deal. But the relatively minor nature of the additions and lack of specific contract language doesn’t bode well for the 40-point swing needed to ratify these agreements.

One thing that might weigh heavily is rail workers’ assessments of the role Congress might play in a redo. Some rail workers are dismayed that just one Senator, Independent Bernie Sanders, stepped in to halt the implementation of the PEB by Congressional action.

“I’m not willing to take a second run at Congress when literally every Democratic senator sat on their hands while Republicans sought to impose the PEB,” an anonymous BLET member told me. “I and many more feel like political pawns—we don’t want a second beating.”

Others think things could change after the midterm elections—either the Democrats would feel less pressure to avert a strike once the elections have passed, or newly elected Republicans would soon be in a better position to implement a worse deal.

Politico reported that Walsh, the morning of the settlement, said, “It’s like, Holy Christ: The magnitude of what would have happened. We’ll never fully understand, thank God.”

For better or worse, the Labor Secretary may be wrong.

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